Rick Rouan | The Columbus Dispatch
State officials won’t release records detailing when railroads ship Bakken crude oil through Ohio.
Federal regulators have warned that oil extracted from the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota might be more flammable than traditional heavy crude. Derailments and explosions of trains carrying Bakken crude spurred a federal order that requires railroads shipping at least 1 million gallons to notify states when the oil rolls between their borders.
Emergency responders know when that’s happening, but Ohio officials are shielding that information from the public.
State officials cited an exemption in Ohio law meant to mitigate acts of terrorism in denying a Dispatch public-records request. However, the U.S. Department of Transportation has determined the files don’t contain sensitive security details.
Other states are releasing the same records. Virginia and Washington, for example, post the files on state websites.
Media organizations in Oregon are fighting the state’s decision to charge for records. Some Plains states released records to the Associated Press, but others are debating whether to provide them.
The Dispatch requested the information from the state but the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, which co-directs the State Emergency Response Commission, denied the request.
The Ohio attorney general’s office and the commission, a consortium of representatives from state agencies, are reviewing Ohio’s stance, said Dan Tierney, spokesman for the attorney general’s office.
“We did not receive any executive order from a U.S. agency saying there was a change,” he said. ” We learned about it through media reports. In light of those developments, we’re reviewing the matter through our client.”
Crude-oil shipments via rail have spiked nationwide as drillers extracting crude in North Dakota look to transport it to coastal refineries.
The 408,000 carloads of crude oil shipped on U.S. rail lines in 2013 represented a 74 percent increase over 2012, according to the American Association of Railroads. That number includes all crude oil — not just Bakken crude.
An oil-train derailment and explosion in Quebec last year killed 47 people. In April, a train carrying 3 million gallons of Bakken crude derailed and exploded in Lynchburg, Va. At the time, no state or federal agency was tracking the crude oil moving through the state.
A week later, the federal government issued its emergency order requiring railroads to tell states where tanks carrying the oil are traveling. Violators risk a $175,000 fine.
Railroads have said the information is proprietary and, if exposed, could pose a danger.
“Our longstanding policy has been to not specifically talk about the routing of specific commodities,” said Dave Pidgeon, a spokesman for Norfolk Southern.
Officials at CSX, which also has rail lines in Ohio, did not respond to a request for comment.
In Virginia, records detailing CSX’s shipments of Bakken crude through 20 counties were submitted on June 13 and posted on a state website. The Washington Emergency Management Division has posted similar records online.
“Obviously it’s public information as far as it’s been deemed here,” said David Watson, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management. “After the train derailment in Lynchburg, there’s obviously public interest.”
The federal order requires railroads to submit notices to state emergency-response commissions.
The Ohio EPA provided a letter from Assistant Attorney General Timothy Kern to emergency responders in denying The Dispatch’s request.
“Ohio EPA couldn’t unilaterally decide (to release the records),” spokesman Chris Abbruzzese said. “It’s bigger than just us.”
Records the railroads must submit to the state include estimates of trains transporting more than 1 million gallons of Bakken crude each week, the identity and description of the cargo, emergency-response information and the route the cargo will travel.
Notices submitted in Virginia and Washington included the number of loaded trains and the county through which they would travel.
Railroads have taken several voluntary measures, including reducing speeds in some areas, as the federal government works on permanent standards.